Island Grown Initiative has officially entered futuristic territory with its introduction of a new greenery to its expansive 40-acre farm in Vineyard Haven.
Through assistance of the Fledgling Fund, IGI has been able to contract Boston-based company Freight Farm to help construct a state-of-the-art, controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) hydroponic system.
Counter to IGI’s current model, the new greenery is entirely enclosed, and consists of automated humidifiers and wide-spectrum LED lights, timed air flow system and water pumps — all of which are computerized and made to be “commanded from an app on a cellphone.”
Although Freight Farm delivered the greenery to the Island last May, IGI has been working on ironing out details and perfecting the system before announcing its introduction.
The goal of the project is to decrease grow-area footprint and increase production by implementing a vertical growing system inside shipping containers, in addition to serving as a learning tool for local sustainable food production.
The greenery’s footprint is significantly less than that of the existing greenhouse, and allows for about 3,200 large plant-growing sites and seedlings, compared with its older systems, which hold 2,100 grow sites in a 15- by 40-foot space.
The contained greenery houses mobile, vertical growing panels arranged for easy access to the grow sites, in addition to ensuring perfect distance from the LEDs that serve as the system’s sun, explained greenhouse manager Taz Armstrong.
Additionally, a 100-gallon water tank is automatically — and intricately — tested to monitor pH levels and electrical conductivity, and is sent, along with plant food, to water emitters that are then distributed among panels, and in effect, create an efficient and sustainable closed ecosystem with the unique aid of technology.
The new system, although involving an array of technical engineering caveats, has been no match for Armstrong’s vast knowledge and farming experience. Serving as the greenery’s main keeper, Armstrong — who has worked for IGI since 2013 — adapted quickly to the new system, all the while using evidence-based lab techniques and experimentation to optimize the space’s potential. Armstrong explained there was a lot of trial and error that went into learning about which plants grow the best and how, oftentimes using the existing greenhouse as a data point for comparison.
The greenery requires sterility, outside shoes must be removed, and a lab coat must be worn. Because, Armstrong explained, just like people in COVID-era small spaces, the risk of contamination is higher than it is outside.
Consisting of foam stripped channels and felt wicking cloths to ensure proper water and food distribution, the panels are the second phase of the process, and follow the initial seedling development. Hydroponic systems are inherently soilless, therefore a mixture of peat and coconut coir is used for the beginning stages of the growing process.
Armstrong emphasized that the hydroponic system of the greenery “doesn’t replace regenerative agriculture” — keeping and improving existing soil — but complements it.
In addition to decreasing grow-area footprint, Armstrong said the optimal day cycle and water pumps allow for the plants to grow faster and more consistently. “It means they are going to do the same thing in January as they do in September and they do in March,” he said. This allows for “year-round growing, consistently.”
Although Armstrong has become accustomed to the new setup, he acknowledged that in comparison to the existing greenhouse, merely feet from the greenery’s entrance, the CEA system is a “pretty dramatic difference.” Yes, “it’s weird, it’s different, it’s futuristic,” he said, “but it’s also plants. They need the exact same things in here that they need out there.”
“Plants need four things. They need sunlight, they need water, they need food, and they need love,” he said. Despite the tech and timers, the plants need the care and attention that only a human can really give.
The project started when Diana Barrett, Harvard Business School professor and founder of the Fledgling Fund — a foundation aimed at helping vulnerable and disenfranchised communities through various mediums, including film — introduced the idea to IGI executive director Rebecca Haag. Already having an immense interest and understanding of the benefits of hydroponic farming, Barrett — a part-time Chilmark resident — with the aim of introducing the system to the Island, via Fledgling Fund, decided on Freight Farm in her search for sustainable and efficient CEAs. With a passion for agriculture, Barrett said the project aims to highlight the importance of being engaged in local food production, in addition to creating a better understanding of one’s relationship to the environment.
“I wanted to find an organization in which this product would be part of the strategy of the organization,” said Barrett on choosing where to first introduce the greenery. A stable organization with expert staff, “IGI was ahead of the curve,” Barrett said, making it “a perfect fit.”
Haag said as the world faces issues concerning climate-change conscious food production and limited land area, the greenery can be used as an educational tool for schools, organizations, and even restaurants.
Haag said IGI is beginning to work with local restaurants who are “specifically interested in [IGI] growing certain things.” Potentially, restaurants could lease a panel, in order to grow a desired crop, she said.
“I could absolutely see having several of these around the Island,” said Haag. But first, IGI plans on learning the most it can about its new greenery and working on maximizing its potential.